Maybe this summer’s lackluster slate has dulled my senses, or maybe I was suffering from heat exhaustion (what I like to refer to as “the sun crazies”). For whatever reason, I really enjoyed the Robert Rodriguez-produced, Nimrod Antal-directed sequel/spin-off/reboot/whatever ‘Predators.’ Like, wholeheartedly. So many movies are marketed and described as being able to make you feel like a kid again. ‘Predators’ really did make me feel like the 13-year-old boy I once was, thrilled by every breathless moment. Is it high art? Not exactly. But if there were any drive-in movie theaters left near me, this would be damn near ideal.
‘Predators’ starts with a bang, as our reluctant anti-hero Royce (Adrien Brody) falls out of the sky. Literally. His parachute opens just before he hits the ground. When he comes to, he has no idea where he is; he’s been displaced in a mysterious jungle. Soon enough, he discovers other survivors. They share a similar story: a bright, blinding light, followed by falling. The other survivors share something else with Royce: they’re all ornery bad-asses. Danny Trejo is a Mexican cartel enforcer. Alice Braga is an Israeli sniper. Walton Goggins is a hardened criminal on death row. (And no, not for scene stealing!) Louis Ozawa Changchien is a yakuza assassin, etc. The only odd duck out is Topher Grace, who plays a mild-mannered suburban doctor… Or is he? (Cue dramatic music.)
Soon enough, these human predators have discovered that they’re on a distant alien planet and that they’re being hunted by the maw-faced monsters that previously menaced Arnold Schwarzenegger in ‘Predator‘ (1987), Danny Glover in ‘Predator 2‘ (1990) and a whole bunch of terrible character actors in a pair of regrettable ‘Alien vs. Predator‘ spin-offs (2004 and 2007). The band of anti-heroes has to form an uneasy alliance (and resist from murdering each other) for a singular goal: to get off of this damn planet. At some point, Laurence Fishburne shows up as a batty survivor of a previous hunting party who has survived for 10 years alone on the alien planet. It’s a role that was clearly meant for Schwarzenegger.
The best thing you can say about ‘Predators’ is that it really does make you forget that the other sequels ever happened. There is a clear through-line between the 1987 original and this movie. Some of the characters even have knowledge of the events of ‘Predator’… But I’ve said too much! ‘Predators’ is a kick to watch. Each new suspense set-piece brings with it a whole bunch of interesting twists and reveals. The movie barely pauses to catch its breath. Saying anything more about the plot of ‘Predators,’ as threadbare as it is, would dilute some of the kicky, midnight movie fun.
Rodriguez, who has been pretty iffy of late, seems to have taken on a more advisory role here. The heavy lifting is done by the film’s director, the underrated Nimrod Antal. Antal has directed a pair of uncanny Hollywood entertainments – the ‘Psycho’-like ‘Vacancy‘ and the heist movie ‘Armored.’ He brings the same kind of visual sophistication from those movies to this one, which means that this is one of the most handsome-looking rubber monster movies you’ll ever see. The camera loops around the actors in long, unbroken takes that orient us, geographically, in ways that few action movies do. The way he seems to both narrow (for claustrophobic intensity) and broaden the film’s scope at the same time is amazing. This movie owes just as much to films like ‘The Naked Prey’ and ‘Apocalypto‘ as it does to the original film.
Also, the cast really rises to the occasion. Brody may not be anyone’s first thought for an action hero, but he equips himself ably. He brings the right amount of gravitas and internal conflict to the role, but also has a knowing wink in his eye. Ditto the rest of the fashionably multi-cultural cast. Goggins, fresh off his outrageously wonderful role in TV’s ‘Justified,’ particularly stands out as the celebrity serial killer. Everyone seems to understand exactly what type of movie they’re in. They’re not afraid to be both scary and funny, sometimes in the same scene.
Are there some faults? Sure. The breakneck pace faces some lulls, and there are some pretty big leaps in logic and understanding. But you know what? Pound-for-pound, dollar-for-dollar, this movie – which seems to have been produced on a budget but looks more expansive than most of the $100 million+ behemoths – is one of the most entertaining pictures you’re likely to see all summer. The most important thing Rodriguez seems to have brought to the production is distance. By filming much of the movie at his base of operations in Austin, Texas, he has come up with something far from the prying eyes of Hollywoodland. And he’s come away with that rarity, an entertainment that actually entertains.